In my first semester at my college, before we had even reached the midterm, one student talked openly about what it meant for him to be an Asian American male in the context of Stop-and-Frisk policies in New York City. He is a HipHoppa whose friends are mostly Latino and Black. While he identifies with and as them, as a man of color, he is not targeted for Stop and Frisk. What does this mean? was the question he asked frequently. This is a rather typical exchange in my classrooms. What was not typical, however, about this particular incident was that I decided to talk to colleagues about what I was witnessing, something I rarely do. When I told my colleagues about the kind of reading/writing/thinking that was happening in this class, the only response I ever heard was: but is his prose correct? How’s his grammar? And that’s it. All of these things that students are politicizing and all these fools can talk about is grammar. Even more problematically, the Asian man is a second-generation Chinese-American, but my colleagues assumed he was FOB—fresh off the boat. Based on European/Ellis Island histories of American assimilation and upward mobility, it has not occurred to them that second-generation immigrants are not living the same high life, have a critique of race, and are highly literate in American codes.
I stopped talking to my colleagues about my students and my pedagogy on that day. When I think through what I am seeing in my classrooms, I take my thoughts, excitements, and ponderings elsewhere… and I plan to keep it that way. I have talked to my colleagues across the country about this young man and unlike my local colleagues, they have been fascinated that a first-year freshman took on the research task that he did. The student decided to do a qualitative study to better understand multiracial, New York college students’ experiences of and perspectives on police profiling. He specifically interviewed (using a semi-structured protocol) white, Asian, Latin@, and Black students, a decision motivated by his quest to see and hear what it means to be allied as an Asian man not targeted for profiling. How could he understand this and more, importantly, how might he ensure that his relative privilege not block his own criticality? Like with all qualitative studies, you just don’t know what might happen when you get out there in the down and dirty…
His interview data got intense real fast. It became clear from his data that white/light-skinned Dominican women supported the stop-and-frisk of Black and Latino men. How would he write that up? Would it be perceived that all Latinas feel this way? Why was this demographic in this location responding this way? How were class and gender and colorism involved here? He had been expecting to hear those arguments in favor of stop-and-frisk from white college students and yet he wasn’t. He was overwhelmed, depressed, and devastated by the findings. I, on the other hand, was delighted. These are the ethical dilemmas around reporting and political intervention that engaged research is supposed to encounter and the colonial mentality that he uncovered was DE.LI.CIOUS. I like to tell graduate students who are planning or currently doing qualitative studies this story. The look of shock is priceless. “He’s a freshman?” they ask. “Yes,” I say (I like to pause for a moment because their look of data-envy is just entertaining). And then I say this: “And now just imagine the tragedy and criminal injustice of focusing his college pedagogies on grammar instruction solely because he is Chinese.” Again, the look of shock is priceless.
What accounts for the limitations with the way this student’s Chinese-ness is imagined in comparison to the way he is actually living and writing it? Like all other forms of violence, U.S. monolingualism and minimal competency instruction for people of color represent a unique kind of savagery.